Insisting on Peace in Colombia

You wouldn’t know it from U.S. newspapers, but a peace movement is building in Colombia. Indigenous peoples, peasant communities, and young draft resisters are saying no to war.

The U.S. Congress voted October 10 to double the number of Pentagon advisors in Colombia to 800. This war-torn country is now the third highest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel and Egypt. Nonetheless, Colombia has largely disappeared from global headlines. When the war—the longest and bloodiest in Latin America—does make the news, rarely do the headlines note the emergence of a grassroots peace movement that is refusing to cooperate with the violence on any side.

In recent years, indigenous peoples in Colombia have defied the rightist paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas alike, demanding that all armed groups respect their constitutional right to autonomous self-governance and stay off their lands.

Peasant villages have followed the example of the indigenous people, declaring themselves “Peace Communities.” And in violence-torn cities like Medellín, youth groups have declared their solidarity with these rural movements and pledged to resist conscription into the armed forces.

The indigenous movement is most advanced in the southern province of Cauca, where indigenous communities launched an unprecedented movement for autonomy. After marching four days from their mountain communities, some 60,000 Indians arrived in the city of Cali on September 17. They marched in spite of threats and intimidation.

Entitled the Minga for Life, Happiness, Justice and Liberty, the march was organized by the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) and its local affiliate, the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN). Minga is an indigenous word for a collective work party.

At each stop along the way, marchers met with local people in community meetings, and local residents joined the march. Many joined when the march reached the Afro-Colombian community of Villarica. The Afro-Colombians, like the Indians, are officially entitled to autonomy under the 1992 constitution—a guarantee they say is routinely violated by armed groups.

Thousands camped out at Cali's stadium after the September 17 rally and convened an Indigenous and Popular Congress the following day. Colombia's hardline President Alvaro Uribe delivered an openly hostile telephone message from the stadium stage, accusing the marchers of exploiting the autonomy issue on behalf of opposition political parties.

Nonetheless, the government appeared to bend to the pressure brought by the march. Alcibiades Escue Musicue, a traditional leader from the Nasa Indian reserve of San Francisco, who had been arrested September 4 by a special National Police Anti-Terrorist Unit, was released September 22. Escue had been arrested on the spurious charge of “conspiracy to commit delinquency,” and the move was widely seen as government intimidation of the Minga.

Intimidation also came from outlawed armed groups. Indigenous authorities in the community of Alto Naya reported that ski-masked paramilitary troops assembled on the road leading from the village as the local contingent prepared to join the Minga.

Guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) abducted five indigenous leaders from Cauca's Toribio municipality, a Nasa community high in the mountains, shortly before the march. The hostages included Arquimedes Vitonas, Toribio's mayor, and Gilberto Munoz, director of Toribio's Nasa-language university—both recognized as “Masters of Wisdom” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for their efforts to preserve indigenous knowledge.

CRIC and ACIN issued a statement demanding immediate release of the leaders, but opposing any military operation and insisting that authorities respect their right to seek resolution “through our autonomous mechanisms of peaceful indigenous resistance.”

On September 6, some 400 members of the Nasa Indigenous Guard, armed only with ceremonial staffs, marched from Toribio down into the rainforest of Caqueta where the men were being held. After a day-long stand-off between the Indigenous Guard and the guerrillas, the men were released.

“When they speak of Colombia, they speak of the narco traffic, they speak of war and violence,” says Luis Evelio Ipia, a Nasa leader from Toribio. “They don't speak of the new political process we are building.”

Peasants declare “Peace Communities”

Mestizo peasants are starting to follow the lead of Colombia's Indians in declaring “active neutrality” in the war. One of the first groups to do so was San José de Apartado, a village in Colombia's northern Uraba region, which declared itself a “Peace Community” in 1997, after repeated incursions by army, paramilitary, and guerrilla forces had left several villagers dead.

Armed groups continue to menace the village. On May 27, President Uribe issued a statement threatening leaders of the Peace Community with arrest for “obstructing justice” by not cooperating with government efforts against the guerrillas. Such accusations have made the village a target for military and paramilitary violence in the past. Uribe also threatened international volunteers with arrest and deportation for supporting the Peace Community by serving as human rights observers.

Just days after Uribe's statement, on June 2, army and National Police agents entered San José de Apartado, demanding the papers of members of Peace Brigades International stationed at the village and announcing that a permanent National Police station would be established at the village. In subsequent weeks, local paramilitaries threatened to re-launch the “food blockade” of the village that they have maintained intermittently since the Peace Community was declared, by erecting checkpoints on the only road linking it to the nearest town. Several local residents have been killed by gunmen on the road in recent years.

After the threats, the Peace Community issued a statement: “We again reiterate our commitment to continue building paths of dignity in the midst of the war.”

“Our neutrality means we will not participate with any armed actors,” says Maria Brigida Gonzalez, one of the Peace Community leaders. “But we will denounce human rights abuses by any side.”

The peace community movement is spreading; villages in the Antioquia highlands, Bolivar province, and Choco province have also declared themselves peace communities, and independent peasant communities of the Cimitarra valley announced their non-cooperation with armed groups.

Youth say no to conscription

An urban counterpart to these movements is Red Juvenil, or Youth Network, founded in 1990 in Medellín's poor barrios to promote youth participation in political life. Milena Meneses, a political science student who also teaches inmates in Medellín's prisons about their human rights, explains the group's purpose: “We promote an alternative youth culture to that of gangs and sicarios,” or hired assassins, she says. “We use theater and art to reach out to the city's youth.” Many young Red activists are former gang members who found new direction after experiencing a Red presentation in Medellín's schools.

Medellín's poor barrios are as much afflicted by Colombia's war as the rural campesino communities of Uraba and Cauca. The city's Zona Centro Oriental, where the Red was founded, was the site of a 1992 massacre of nine youths by plainclothed police. In 2002 an army sweep of the Comuna 13 district, which had become a stronghold of an urban guerrilla militia, left some 35 dead. In this and other outlying poor districts that climb the steep hills overlooking the city center, the notorious Metro Bloc paramilitary is waging a war of extermination against street gangs and urban guerrillas.

The Red Juvenil is part of a network of community centers in these violence-ravaged districts attempting to promote education, self-help and human rights. The Red's most important work is in advocating the right of conscientious objection and supporting Colombian youth who refuse to serve in the army.

The group has also come under attack. On July 29, the home of a leading Red member was visited by two armed men who first said they were with the paramilitary and later claimed to be from a government enforcement agency. The Red activist was out at the time, but her mother was at home with a two-month-old baby. The mother was menaced with pistols, tied up, and locked in the bathroom as the men searched the house. The men left with the mother still trapped and the baby asleep in another room—she eventually managed to free herself. Red Juvenil considers the invasion an implicit threat to members of the organization.

And at the annual May Day march in Medellín this year, police brutally attacked members of the Red, injuring three and leaving one hospitalized. Twenty Red activists at the march held banners reading “No Army Defends the Peace” and “Neither War that Destroys Us nor Peace that Oppresses Us.” The violence began when one of the trade unionists in the march, apparently suspected of spray-painting slogans on a wall, was chased down by the police just as he reached the young pacifist marchers. Martín Emilio Rodriguez, who edits Red Juvenil's newsletter Mal Creyente, threw himself over the unionist in an effort to protect him from the swinging clubs. When he started receiving blows himself, other Red activists threw their bodies in front of him. One received a bloody nose, and two were sprayed with pepper gas. Among those attacked was Adriana Castaño, Red Juvenil's human rights director.

Finally a police tank arrived, and Martín was taken away in handcuffs, along with the unionist. Martín was hospitalized for several days, but proved only to be badly bruised. Red Juvenil is calling for an investigation into the elite National Police anti-riot team they say was behind the attack.

The Red's Adriana Castaño says that despite the violence and intimidation, their campaign is beginning to make people aware of alternatives to the war. “Now we are acknowledged as having at least a minority position,” she says. “Even if they call us anarchists and utopians.”

In August 2003, the Red Juvenil hosted a conference in Medellín that brought together representatives from San José de Apartado and other Peace Communities, the indigenous movement in Cauca, and draft resisters from several South American nations. One of the strongest points of unity was opposition to further U.S. aid to Colombia—aid they say is being used to escalate the war. U.S. taxpayer money is supplying helicopters, guns, training, and intelligence on guerrilla movements to Uribe's government.

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